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Almost all old S Pens work with the S21 Ultra.
The most satisfying thing about the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra having S Pen functionality is that I’m not shackled to the spindly, miniaturized stylus of the Note. The difference between the full-sized S pen from the Galaxy Tab series and the fun-size stylus in the Note is night and day.
I often have an oddly visceral reaction to flimsy technology or anything that looks suspiciously like it will be the subject of several warranty emails to the manufacturer. This isn’t necessarily the Note stylus, but it’s close.
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I understand the design compromises that had to be made to fit a digital pen into a phone, and I commend Samsung for ever having the audacity to even try that, but the full-sized S Pen feels like a proper stylus.
The S Pen I borrowed from my Galaxy Tab S7+ makes that clear. The extra length and wider diameter removes the feeling of compromise in use, which is an important step for convincing your subconscious to remember to use it. And use it I have.
The Note S Pen (right) doesn’t feel as sturdy as the full-sized version.
The 120Hz, QHD+ display on the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra combines well with the low latency (9ms) S Pen, which results in an exceptionally smooth drawing experience. The soft nib glides nicely across the screen and registers your strokes almost instantly. You can see this is an area Samsung is experienced in.
Although I’m not necessarily convinced that super high resolutions and increasing pixel density is obviously visible on displays of this size, there’s no denying the artist experience on this phone looks excellent. If some of the big display numbers Samsung likes to boast about aren’t actually visible to the human eye, at least we know the device is delivering the best possible screen experience our eyes can handle.
The low latency makes drawing on the S21 Ultra fun.
Drawing is the clear beneficiary of the low latency and high specification display. I’m not good at sketching and I get little joy from an hour-long activity that only reminds me of my lack of ability. But the quality of the tools made the activity fun. I’ve spent a good few hours on Samsung’s Pen Up app (which helps amateurs learn to draw) picking up some skills and enjoying the process.
Pen Up’s live drawing feature lets you gradually trace other people’s artwork in order to learn about pen strokes and dexterity. Here’s my attempt at a crab (right) next to the professional version (left). Disclaimer: I have a shellfish allergy which is why my picture of a crab is bad.
Mario Crab Vs. Wario Crab (my attempt on the right).
What works well here is the palm rejection technology, which means I can get in close and rest my palm on the screen without giving the phone confusing signals. The magnify option in the Air Commands menu–that enhances any portion of the screen the pen is hovering over–really helps with seeing how bad my free-hand straight lines are. It’s reasonably seamless too. When the phone recognizes the Pen is within pointing range, a translucent Air Commands menu appears and offers several quick S Pen functionality options.
Where the S Pen really shines, though, is with Adobe Lightroom. I now realize it’s not possible to use Lightroom in any meaningful way without the precision and dexterity of a pen tip because picture editing deals in specifics.
Adjusting the highlights, shadows and tilting the image slightly all requires exact precision that can’t be achieved with your fingertip. This is one of the main reasons I dodge any serious picture editing on my phone (aside from a lack of ability), but the stylus enhances the experience to the point it’s a clear necessity.
Adobe Lightroom is much easier to use with a stylus.
The downside is how fiddly this all is. The big expansive canvas of a tablet is truly suited to digital pen use, whereas a phone feels cramped and unsteady. You need a table, a big screen and somewhere to rest your elbow to get the most out of creating with a digital pen.
Sitting on the sofa and stabbing a small screen just isn’t the same. Note taking is a casualty of this. Predictive text will always be faster than trying to minimize your handwriting to fit on a small screen, particularly if you’re in a rush. If you’ve ever had to sign for a delivery on a digital surface with your finger, and just ended up scribbling some nonsense, then you’ll know what I’m talking about. Note taking with a stylus isn’t much different. It’s just as wild and erratic.
Air Actions from the Note 10 and Galaxy Tab series, which lets users control their phone by swiping in the air with the S Pen, isn’t available because it requires a Bluetooth connection, nor is using the S Pen as a remote button that can be mapped for things like taking pictures. However, there will be an S Pen pro that adds this functionality at some point in the future. The option to map the button to switching brushes, or whatever creative tool you need, would be welcome.
Precise actions required in editing apps, drawing and drawing-adjacent activities (annotating screenshots for example) is where the S Pen on the Galaxy S21 Ultra shines for me. This is aided by a larger stylus, which is why I’m happy to have a larger pen-holding case rather than a special port inside the phone to hold a miniaturized digital pen. If you’re going to do the whole stylus thing, do it properly.
I’m a London-based freelance journalist who specializes in all aspects of technology including reviews, investigations, comment and news. I’m a recovering founder of the